In her forthcoming memoir With All Due Respect, which will be published on Tuesday, Nikki Haley claims that during her term as United Nations ambassador she was approached by two top members of the Trump administration, then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then–White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who wanted her aid in thwarting Donald Trump. “Kelly and Tillerson confided in me that when they resisted the president, they weren’t being insubordinate, they were trying to save the country,” Haley writes. “It was their decisions, not the president’s, that were in the best interests of America, they said. The president didn’t know what he was doing.”
It’s not news that Donald Trump’s White House is riven by infighting. A voluminous journalistic literature already testifies to the dysfunction of an administration where the president’s closest advisers often despise him. What is more noteworthy is that Haley wants to distance herself from Trump’s minders, the so-called “adults in the room” who have tried to straitjacket the president. Just three years ago, Haley was an urgent anti-Trump voice. Now, she has become one of his cagiest defenders, all the more effective because she occasionally peppers her advocacy with provisos admitting to Trump’s faults.
Haley, widely viewed as a politician with a big future in the Republican Party, is a harbinger. Her trajectory mirrors larger changes in the party. She’s clearly decided that fastening herself to Trump is the best way to secure success going forward.
Even more than her fellow South Carolina politician Lindsey Graham, Haley illustrates how deep the Trumpification of the Republican Party has gone. After all, Graham’s allegiance to Trump can be explained by a desire to avoid being challenged in a primary and also to keep being part of Trump’s inner circle, essential for Graham if he wants to push his hawkish agenda. Whatever presidential ambitions Graham once nursed died with his disastrous campaign of 2016.
Haley, by contrast, remains a plausible Republican presidential candidate. Some journalists, notably Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, even suggest that Trump might ditch Mike Pence and make Haley his running mate in 2020. Given her presidential hopes, Haley’s motives speak more about the long-term future of the party. Haley has decided that if she wants to be vice president in 2020 or president in 2024, she’ll need to maintain her reputation as a Trump loyalist.
Haley is an unlikely Trumpist. As the child of Indian immigrants, she’s been touted as a politician who can help the GOP appeal to people of color. She’s often spoken about how traumatic it was to be governor of South Carolina during the Charleston church shooting of 2015, when a white nationalist killed nine African Americans.
Haley opposed Trump in the Republican primaries. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.” She also called Trump “irresponsible.” Trump responded by tweeting that “the people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!”
Even after Trump made her United Nations ambassador in 2017, Never Trump conservatives held out hope, based on her earlier criticism, that she would reemerge as an insurgent voice inside the party.
In July 2018, William Kristol, then editor at large of The Weekly Standard, tweeted, “As I may have said before: The Nikki Haley 2020 GOP primary challenge to Trump is going to be lit. Macron resigned from Cabinet in 2016. Elected president a year later. Will be two years for Nikki.”
As with many of Kristol’s prophecies, this has proven to be singularly lacking in prescience. Even after leaving her UN post at the end of 2018, Haley has been careful not to pick fights with Trump. Rather, she’s carved out a position where she’ll make muted criticisms of specific Trump actions but balance them with vocal public support for the president.
In her new book, she notes that she agreed with many of Trump’s most controversial policies, notably the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal as well as the move of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. When she disagreed with Trump, as with his Russia policy and his response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, she did so in private. She acknowledged that Trump’s telling “the Squad” to go back to their countries was inappropriate, but hedged that with her own criticism of the Democratic congresswomen. About the current Ukrainegate scandal, Haley takes the standard Republican line that Trump’s actions were inappropriate but didn’t reach the level of impeachable.
Haley is so little a critic of Trump that the president took to Twitter to give her book a plug, writing, “Make sure you order your copy today, or stop by one of her book tour stops to get a copy and say hello.”
The overall message Haley is selling is clear: She’s a good solider, a loyal Republican who served Trump as best she could. With her criticism of Tillerson and Kelly as well as her opposition to impeachment, Haley is giving credence to the emerging Republican narrative that Trump’s presidency was sabotaged by disloyal aides and angry Democrats. This is likely to be the story line Republicans use in the future to justify their actions in the Trump era.
A significant divide in the Trump White House has been between Republicans Party officials and those who came to the White House from other institutions, be they big business (like Tillerson) or the military (like John Kelly). The GOP officials have been significantly more loyal to Trump, more eager to carry out his agenda, and less likely to try to undermine him. Haley exemplifies the way elite Republicans have decided to cast their lot with Trump, for good or ill.
As David Frum notes in The Atlantic, “Every ambitious national-level Republican is building the rest of his or her career on the assumption that come 2024, the Trump loyalists will continue to run the show.” Republicans like Haley might grumble here and there about some of Trump’s tweets or policies, but these mutterings are minor compared to their more substantial allegiance to Trump and Trumpism.
It’s Trump’s party now. His most significant victory has been to convince those Republicans who most stridently rejected him that he’s the wave of the future. If Haley ever wins the Republican nomination, in 2024 or 2028, it’ll still be Trump’s party. In fact, what will make Haley an attractive candidate in the future is that she’ll continue to carry Trump’s message but also make it seem new because it’ll be coming from a woman of color.